Black Hole Bonanza! Dozens (Potentially) Found In Andromeda As Another Study Probes X-Rays

More than two DOZEN potential black holes have been found in the nearest galaxy to our own. As if that find wasn’t enough, another research group is teaching us why extremely high-energy X-rays are present in black holes.

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is home to 26 newly found black hole candidates that were produced from the collapse of stars that are five to 10 times as massive as the sun.

Using 13 years of observations from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a research team pinpointed the locations. They also corroborated the information with X-ray spectra (distribution of X-rays with energy) from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory.

“When it comes to finding black holes in the central region of a galaxy, it is indeed the case where bigger is better,” stated co-author Stephen Murray, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

A close-up of the candidate black holes in Andromeda, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/SAO/R.Barnard, Z.Lee et al.), Optical (NOAO/AURA/NSF/REU Prog./B.Schoening, V.Harvey; Descubre Fndn./CAHA/OAUV/DSA/V.Peris
A close-up of the candidate black holes in Andromeda, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/SAO/R.Barnard, Z.Lee et al.), Optical (NOAO/AURA/NSF/REU Prog./B.Schoening, V.Harvey; Descubre Fndn./CAHA/OAUV/DSA/V.Peris

“In the case of Andromeda, we have a bigger bulge and a bigger supermassive black hole than in the Milky Way, so we expect more smaller black holes are made there as well,” Murray added.

The total number of candidates in M31 now stands at 35, since the researchers previously identified nine black holes in the area. All told, it’s the largest number of black hole candidates identified outside of the Milky Way.

Meanwhile, a study led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center examined the high-radiation environment inside a black hole — by simulation, of course. The researchers performed a supercomputer modelling of gas moving into a black hole, and found that their work helps explain some mysterious X-ray observations of recent decades.

Researchers distinguish between “soft” and “hard” X-rays, or those X-rays that have low and high energy. Both types have been observed around black holes, but the hard ones puzzled astronomers a bit.

Here’s what happens inside a black hole, as best as we can figure:

– Gas falls towards the singularity, orbits the black hole, and gradually becomes a flattened disk;

– As gas piles up in the center of the disk, it compresses and heats up;

– At a temperature of about 20 million degrees Fahrenheit (12 million degrees Celsius), the gas emits “soft” X-rays.

So where did the hard X-rays — that with energy tens or even hundreds of times greater than soft X-rays — come from? The new study showed that magnetic fields are amplified in this environment that then “exerts additional influence” on the gas, NASA stated.

Artist's conception of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA

“The result is a turbulent froth orbiting the black hole at speeds approaching the speed of light. The calculations simultaneously tracked the fluid, electrical and magnetic properties of the gas while also taking into account Einstein’s theory of relativity,” NASA stated.

One key limitation of the study was it modelled a non-rotating black hole. Future work aims to model one that is rotating, NASA added.

You can check out more information about these two studies below:

– Andromeda black holes: Chandra identification of 26 new black hole candidates in the central region of M31. (Also available in the June 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.)

– X-ray modelling of black holes: X-ray Spectra from MHD Simulations of Accreting Black Holes. (Also available in the June 1 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.)

Sources: Chandra X-Ray Observatory and NASA

Galaxy Mergers Make Black Holes ‘Light Up’

Only about 1% of supermassive black holes emit large amounts of energy, and astronomers have wondered for decades why so few exhibit this behavior. Data from Swift satellite, which normally studies gamma ray bursts, has allowed scientists to confirm that black holes “light up” when galaxies collide, and the data may offer insight into the future behavior of the black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy.

The intense emission from galaxy centers, or nuclei, arises near a supermassive black hole containing between a million and a billion times the sun’s mass. Giving off as much as 10 billion times the sun’s energy, some of these active galactic nuclei (AGN) are the most luminous objects in the universe. They include quasars and blazars.

“Theorists have shown that the violence in galaxy mergers can feed a galaxy’s central black hole,” said Michael Koss, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park. “The study elegantly explains how the black holes switched on.”

Swift was launched in 2004, and while its Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) is waiting to detect the next gamma ray burst, it also has been mapping the sky using hard X-rays, said Neil Gehrels, Swift’s principal investigator. “In fact, it detected its 508th gamma ray burst about 30 minutes ago,” Gehrels said at the press conference the morning of May 26th at the 216th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “But building up its exposure year after year, the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey is the largest, most sensitive and complete census of the sky at these energies.”

Until this hard X-ray survey, astronomers never could be sure they had counted the majority of the AGN. Thick clouds of dust and gas surround the black hole in an active galaxy, which can block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy, or soft X-ray, light. Infrared radiation from warm dust near the black hole can pass through the material, but it can be confused with emissions from the galaxy’s star-forming regions. Hard X-rays can help scientists directly detect the energetic black hole.

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The survey, which is sensitive to AGN as far as 650 million light-years away, uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems.

“The Swift BAT survey is giving us a very different picture of AGN,” Koss said. The team finds that about a quarter of the BAT galaxies are in mergers or close pairs. “Perhaps 60 percent of these galaxies will completely merge in the next billion years. We think we have the ‘smoking gun’ for merger-triggered AGN that theorists have predicted.”

“A big problem in astronomy is understanding how black holes grow and are fed,” said Joel Bregman from the University of Michigan. “We know growth in the early stages of a black hole’s life is a combination of mergers plus accretion of gas and dust from nearby stars, and we think that the accretion is the more important process. But this shows us that the feeding of the gas and dust has been channeled into the center at a fairly early stage, and the disturbance from the mergers allows gas to be funneled into the center and flow into the black hole.”

“We’ve never seen the onset of AGN activity so clearly,” said Bregman, who was not involved in the study. “The Swift team must be identifying an early stage of the process with the Hard X-ray Survey.”

Other members of the study team include Richard Mushotzky and Sylvain Veilleux at the University of Maryland and Lisa Winter at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The study will appear in the June 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: NASA, NASA press conference